Personas Are Back In Style

Personas are making a comeback in strategic planning.

As the social Internet fragments audiences understanding the coherent behaviors of the increasing number of audiences segments is becoming the critical first step in account planning.

The modern use of personas as far as my research found, dates to the 1980s. Angus Jenkinson began to use them to develop the first CRM strategies as the CEO of a database marketing firm in the UK, and they were adopted by OgilvyOne as the centerpiece of their strategy development.

He generally is credited for inventing the practice as part of customer research.   Personas appeared shortly after “account planning” was established in the UK as the third leg of the ad agency stool: copywriter, art director, and—using marketing research to represent the needs of the customer—the account planner.

Personas in the modern era were integral in the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.  But it wasn’t until OglivyOne adopted them as “Customer Prints” that they became a framework for organizing all customer understandings.

Personas were especially useful for interactive marketing because they could allow for imaginative integration of different customer behaviors and tasks, acting like use cases.

Since the 1990s other types of customer definition have layered market research.  Behavioral analysis focused on end results, much like direct marketing had.  All that mattered was what behaviors led to a customer buying.  If that customer was a woman, or Hispanic, or living in a household with kids under age 5 didn’t matter as much

Once a general target is defined, marketers can focus closer and closer on customers who are buying.  A/B testing of creative, re-targeting customers once they are identified as good prospects, and trying alternative forms of offer all evolve from the idea of trying to define what engagement a company has to do to get a specific customer to buy.

Interactive online engagement makes all this cheap and easy to chase one customer until they buy.

Personas have fallen in disrepute since the turn of the century, as marketing becomes more data driven. But they still can retain their original value—as proxies for real customers and their real wants, needs and behaviors.

I think it’s even more important now because people inside business organizations—many, many people–haven’t been exposed directly to the customer and the marketing strategies the organization uses to speak to them.  Personas are valuable to make clear who the customers are and why they’re interested in the product.

This is what I call the “inside out” effect.  Organizations will find more and more employees having greater direct communications with customers, prospects and strangers.  These employees need a way to get on the same page.  Personas can be a useful central tool in creating a model of the audiences the employees will be speaking with.

Sumeet Kanwar is a brilliant analytics leader at OMD in Chicago.  He began his career at Sears, working in product management.  One line of products he worked with was dishwashers.  He told me they found out there were precisely three different audiences that bought dishwashers, each with a unique motivation:

People re-modeling their existing kitchen.  They had some time to think about the different models and features and often were in the market for a better dishwasher.

Second were people moving into a new home.  Usually there was a dishwasher in place but it was either broken or inadequate.  They need to buy a solid dishwasher and get a recommendation of someone to install it.

Third were people whose dishwasher had blown up.  They were at Sears to buy a dishwasher right now, and get it installed as soon as possible.

I don’t know if there was collateral demographic information about each of these audiences, for example those re-modelers were $75,000+ household income, the decision maker was female or male, etc. etc.  But it strikes me that these are very valid persona of a kind I would call behavioral personas.  Some college kids living in a frat house might have their dishwasher blow up, or my next door neighbors who are an elderly retired couple might as well.  Both fit the “disaster” persona, and they share a strong common decision making process. One might buy a more expensive dishwasher than another, but the key for the salesperson was to recognize the urgency and go into total solution provider mode—don’t worry, we’ll take care of you right away,

Sears might want to emphasize somewhere in its advertising that “same day” delivery and installation was possible.

Best Buy was renowned for its four personas–Buzz, Jill, Barry and Ray.  Buzz was the single, male nerd with disposable income who had to have the latest media and game technology, and so on.  Jill bought the electronics in the living room or family room, and often bought the family camera.

I’m thinking about the value of persona in developing social media strategies for organizations.  General Mills has a newsletter called “Dinner for Two,” and another one for its “Box tops for Education” program for parent’s organizations pooling box tops to earn money and supplies for their kid’s school.

These are two very distinct groups of people with strong collateral social media habits. A strategy to reach people cooking for two would be very different from trying to engage parents and encourage them to work with Box tops for Education in their school.

I know at some firms, like Organic, they have reputations for blowing out personas to the Nth degree–whole rooms decorated the way Buzz or Judy would live, and so on.

They key to using them is to not be afraid to let the natural organization rule.  If it’s behavioral, so be it.  The customers have to be understood in their actual contexts.  It’s tempting (and fun) to get a glimpse of a customer segment and then just start making up stuff, painting a picture of them like Henry James might, full of rich details from people you recall just like this.

This is where the use of personas can fall apart,  you have to do the hard digging through data analysis, interviews, observation, and research.  We have to let the audiences speak for themselves and capture that in order to create persona that can drive effective customer segmentation

Customer segmentation is the mandate for what Dakota Reese calls the “Contextual Web,” his term for Web 3.0. (Web 1.0 he calls the “Presentation Web” and Web 2.0 the “Transactional Web,” since these are the essential functions added at each evolution.)   Customers are coming to expect that companies will understand and respond to their needs in the context of their daily lives.

Mobile and social communications speed this up and make it more complex.  The answer isn’t to simplify, it’s to clarify customer segments.

Like Einstein said– “make things as simple as possible–but no simpler.”



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About Rohn Jay Miller

I'm a strategic designer who works with clients who are transforming their business models because of change brought on by the Internet. Solving disruption is often a problem and an opportunity at the same time. Previously I was a founding partner of Ikonic/USWeb in San Francisco, and Senior Vice President--Product & Technology for Knight Ridder in San Jose.

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